Top critical review
Deeply disappointing ending
Reviewed in the United States on August 19, 2015
I was prepared to love Harriet the Spy. The idea of a child imagining herself to be a spy was something I could identify with, and thought would be a fun topic to explore. As I got into the book and realized that her true ambition was to become a writer, and that her spying and writing in her notebooks was to gather descriptive information about people that she could use in her writing later on, my expectations were a little different, but still something I could very much relate to. I liked very much the limited third person perspective--the book stays very much focused on Harriet's perception and level of understanding.
I really liked it when the book seemed to begin exploring class differences from a child's point of view--Harriet begins to realize that her family has a nanny and a cook, while her best friend Sport is essentially managing his own household for his father, a struggling writer. The people Harriet is spying on come from all different sorts of circumstances, from a wealthy woman who has decided to lie in bed and talk to people on the phone all day and a couple who have no interests except for buying things and showing them off to friends, to a young man who works in a store and feeds poor people from the back door and another who keeps dozens of cats in his home. I was expecting some sort of recognition of the inequities in life. At one point, Harriet wonders if she is rich, but the observation never really goes anywhere. The book raised the issue of class distinctions without really dealing with it in any meaningful way.
Another aspect of the story involves Harriet's relationship to her nurse, Ole Golly. Ole Golly is a highly literate woman, a little eccentric, but understanding well how to handle Harriet. Harriet is taken on a journey of recognition that her nurse has a life apart from her duties in Harriet's household. First she meets Ole Golly's mother, who seems to be either mentally challenged or suffering from dementia (or both), although Ole Golly seems to attribute her mother's behavior to a lack of interest in people, books, education, or any other way of life. It appears that this is why Ole Golly encourages Harriet's spy activities. It turns out that Ole Golly has a boyfriend as well, and the two of them get engaged. Through a combination of circumstances, Ole Golly leaves her employment at Harriet's house abruptly, marries, and moves to Montreal. Harriet is left without guidance, as her parents are wealthy socialites who are largely neglectful of her.
This lack of guidance precipitates the central crisis of the book, as Harriet's notebook falls into the hands of her classmates at school, and they read the way Harriet has been writing about them. This leads to my central criticism of the book. Harriet's descriptions in her notebooks are almost universally derogatory. Other people, to Harriet, are almost always ugly, fat, stupid, and/or boring. Harriet wonders whether a schoolmate's mother hated her when she was born, observing that she certainly would have hated her. Her description of "what to do about" another classmate involves turning a hose on him, pinching his ears until he screams, and tearing his pants off and laughing at him. She mocks children of divorce. She names one boy "the boy with the purple socks" because nobody can remember his name, even though he has the perfectly normal name of Peter. Even her best friends fall victim to her scathing attacks.
Granted, much of Harriet's apparent mean-spiritedness is a function of her youthful lack of understanding of other people's situations, and I must admit that Fitzhugh skewers childhood politics and intramural nastiness with a telling satirical accuracy. But once again, an opportunity for the development of empathy and sensitivity is lost upon Harriet. As Harriet's classmates ostracize her and torment her in class, Harriet responds not with contrition but with acting out and pulling pranks herself, which finally gets the attention of her previously oblivious parents, whose solution is to take her first to the doctor and then to a psychologist. Even after this, no adult in her life ever sits Harriet down and explains to her that indulging nasty feelings by writing them down in her notebook is both morally wrong and likely to end with exposure and exactly the kind of backlash Harriet is experiencing now. Nobody ever tells her that looking at people judgmentally, mocking them for physical defects or situations in life that they cannot help, is wrong in the first place. Instead, she is rewarded with a writing outlet: the sixth grade page in her student newspaper, in which she begins to indulge exactly the same sort of mean-spirited observations she had been making all along (ones which are extremely unlikely to have been printed in any actual school publication).
The apparently intended turning point happens when Harriet receives a letter from Ole Golly (evidently at her parents' instigation) that tells her that while she must continue to be honest in her private notes, if they ever become public, she must apologize and lie. Once again, even Ole Golly fails to make a distinction between being honest and being judgmental and unkind. So Harriet makes a generic apology, and (what is probably more important) the group organized against her inevitably falls apart with its own squabbling. The book ends with Harriet beginning to renew her friendship with Sport and reflecting that, yeah, sometimes you just have to lie.
The book has great writing and a wonderful premise but a deeply amoral and misanthropic viewpoint. Those who love the book will argue that, if we were honest, we would admit that all (or most, or many) children think like that, and really, how much empathy and emotional development are we expecting from an eleven-year-old? They will argue that people like me are looking for a sappy ending in which wonderful lessons are learned and all ends up right with the world. My own view is that the book is full of missed opportunities--opportunities to really explore class differences, parental neglect, childhood pecking orders and spitefulness, and creative ambition. Fitzhugh keeps raising issues that she refuses to deal with, and that's why the conclusion is so deeply unsatisfying.